Solomon: Lapsed King

Solomon, who succeeded David as king over Israel, is known for his exceptional wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34; cf. 3:16-28; 10:1-10). It is then often asked, If Solomon was so wise why was he so foolish as to multiply not just wives (like his father), but foreign wives, who led him to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 11:1-8)? David was not perfect, but his heart never succumbed to idolatry, though we have seen how his polygamy brought him much suffering. This is a serious question, as Solomon’s idolatry resulted in the kingdom of Israel splitting into two after his death: the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).

Solomon’s idolatry was also a great disappointment given that he began exceptionally well as king over Israel. He was magnanimous to forgive his oldest (surviving) brother Adonijah, who had proclaimed himself king over Israel without their then bedridden father’s knowledge or permission. Solomon and his mother Bathsheba would have been executed if Adonijah had succeeded. This attempt to seize power was thwarted by the prophet Nathan, who not only informed Bathsheba about it but also instructed her on what to do (1 Kings 1:5-14). Adonijah was executed after David’s death but only because he did something else that could be interpreted as another attempt to usurp the throne (1 Kings 2:13-25).

Before David died he charged Solomon to observe God’s commandments with all his heart so that God would keep His promise that David would not lack a descendant to sit on his throne (1 Kings 2:1-4). But this does not mean Solomon need not be politically prudent to ensure that his throne will be established. This explains why David also warned Solomon about Joab and Shimei, the two other men besides Adonijah who could destabilise his reign (1 Kings 2:5-9; cf. Provan 1995: 34). So when the occasion arose Solomon executed them as well (1 King 2:28-46a).

David’s warning and Solomon’s action may be interpreted as ruthless if we disregard the narrator’s own comment: “Thus the kingdom was established in the hands of Solomon” (1 Kings 2:46b). In other words the narrator, who was in a better position than us to understand the situation, interpreted the warning and action as necessary. For given the reality of politics in the ancient world, such actions may be needed to preserve peace and prevent the loss of innocent lives (cf. 1 Kings 2:26-27, where Abiathar’s life was spared though “you deserve to die,” implying that he was no threat like Joab or Shimei).

Furthermore the narrator also presents Solomon as wise and God-fearing (not ruthless) at this stage of his reign. He even says Solomon “loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David” (1 Kings 3:3). And when God appeared to Solomon in a dream to give him a blank check, Solomon asked for wisdom because he felt he was too inexperienced to rule God’s people justly (1 Kings 3:5-14). God was very pleased that Solomon asked for wisdom instead of wealth, long life or the death of his enemies. So God gave Solomon not only wisdom but also riches and honor. Solomon was thus God-fearing and wise enough to have asked for wisdom to rule justly. That would make him an exceptionally good king.

God had said to David that his successor, specifically naming Solomon, would reign in a time of rest from all enemies so that he could build the Temple instead of David himself, who was a man of war (1 Chronicles 22:8-10). So it is not surprising that the narrator, after highlighting how Solomon removed internal threats to peace, and before recounting Solomon’s works on the Temple, informs us that Solomon not only ruled over all Israel (1 Kings 4:1) but that he also “ruled over all the [surrounding] kingdoms,” which “brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life” (1 Kings 4:21-22). This also contributed to Solomon’s tremendous wealth.

The narrator presents a relatively detailed account of Solomon’s works on the Temple, his own palace and other building projects (1 Kings 5:1-8:11; 9:10-28). But our concern here is Solomon’s understanding of God and His will as well as his commitment to God and His will at this stage of his reign. This is best seen in his prayer to God and his benediction upon the people at the dedication service of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22-61).

Of particular significance is not only his confession that “there is no God like You in heaven above or on earth beneath” (verse 23), but also that “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built (to be Your dwelling place)” (verse 27; cf. 8:13). This is another unmistakable confession of monotheism. For the God affirmed and defined here is not only unique in the universe, but is also beyond the universe (transcendent) as well as within the universe (immanent). God is thus in a category of His own. So even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that the so-called “gods” referred to in the Bible were then believed to be real divine beings, they are still not like, and are thus not, God as affirmed and defined here. Hence Solomon clearly confessed that there is only one God.

In view of Solomon’s monotheist confession, the idea of God “dwelling” in the midst of Israel through the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, needs to be qualified (cf. Isaiah 66:1-3). It was God’s “Name” (verse 29), which stands for who God is and what He does, that dwelt in their midst. This means God essentially but not actually “dwelt” in their midst. For God manifested Himself and was thus “present” in the Temple so that those who prayed in faith toward the Temple could be assured that they were praying to God and thus would expect Him to hear and answer them (verses 29-30). In other words, there was actually no real advantage in praying within the Temple itself, let alone at any sacred location outside the Temple (cf. Provan 1995: 79).

This is consistent with monotheism, which in contrast to polytheism, denies that rituals have intrinsic efficacy. Hence the location where one prays does not matter. Even the direction of prayer toward the Temple was only because God’s Name was located there; it helped them to focus so that they could pray meaningfully to an invisible God who cannot be represented by any image. But for New Testament believers, even the direction does not matter (cf. John 4:20-21). For they themselves are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). God’s “presence” is thus so real to them (John 14:21-23; cf. verses 16-20) that they do not need the prescribed “visual aids” of the Old Testament to pray meaningfully to Him.

Also significant in Solomon’s prayer (verses 41-43) and benediction (verses 59-61) is his exhortation that their heart “be wholly devoted to the LORD … to keep His commandments” and thus be blessed. This was “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God, there is no other” and hence “fear You, as do Your people Israel” and so be blessed as well. This is a forthright confession that Israel’s mission was to be light to the world so that all the nations of the earth may be blessed, just as God promised in the Abrahamic Covenant.

With such a magnificent confession that there is no other God in the universe and that all the nations are therefore to turn from idolatry to worship this one and only God, how is it possible that Solomon, who began so well, and with his exceptional God-endowed wisdom, ended up denying the truth of this confession by worshipping the idols of the nations?

When we cited the narrator’s comment that Solomon “loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David,” we left out the qualifying statement, “except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places” (1 Kings 3:3). This is an explicit criticism of Solomon. The “high places” were places where the Canaanites practiced their idolatry. So Solomon worshipped God in places associated with idolatry. In view of Solomon’s future idolatry, this criticism highlights a root-cause of his downfall.

And the narrator also mentions that at the beginning of his reign, Solomon married an Egyptian princess to seal political alliance with the Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). In view of the narrator’s later comment that “Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh,” who in his old age led him to worship their native gods (1 Kings 11:1-8), this is an implicit criticism that highlights another root-cause of his downfall (cf. Provan 1995: 44-46).

It cannot be overstated that both these root-causes were planted in Solomon’s life before God appeared to him in that dream, that is, before God endowed him with the exceptional wisdom. Thus there were pre-existing “blind spots” in his life that pre-empted his exceptional wisdom from functioning properly in these already-compromised aspects of his life. Solomon had presupposed that it was acceptable for him as king to marry foreign women for political reasons, as it was the practice in the ancient world. And he had also presupposed that it was acceptable for him to worship God in places associated with foreign gods, as he was worshipping God and not idols. When he lived out both presuppositions, and lived with so many foreign wives, he was immersed in the temptation to follow them in worshipping their gods. It was then a matter of time before he was persuaded to take the next step. The synergic combination of these questionable presuppositions thus proved deadly.

We have recognized from the outset of this exposition that our presuppositions, which we are often unaware of, not only affect what we see and what we do not see, but also how we interpret what we do see. The experience of Solomon shows that even a person who fears and loves God and has seen and confessed the truth about God and His will, and who is exceptionally wise, is not spared the blinding effects of false presuppositions. This is why we did not move ahead in our exposition of the Old Testament until we had considered the credibility of Genesis 1:1, which lays down the basic presuppositions upon which the entire Bible is built. We need to be aware of our presuppositions and weigh them carefully.

After Solomon had completed building the Temple, his own palace as well as “all that Solomon desired to do,” God appeared to him a second time (1 Kings 9:1-9). God assured Solomon that He had heard his prayer and had consecrated the Temple. God also warned Solomon that if he or his descendants turned away from following Him and keeping His commandments to serving and worshipping foreign gods, Israel would be exiled and the Temple would be destroyed. This was actually a reminder of what God had already warned through Moses before the nation even entered the Promised Land.

The immediate consequence of Solomon’s subsequent idolatry was the splitting of the kingdom into two after his death (1 Kings 11:9-13). Thus though the northern ten tribes were taken away from David’s family, Solomon’s descendants still ruled over Judah (and Benjamin). This was because of God’s mercy on David’s family in view of His promise to David that kingship would not be taken away from his family.

God had informed not only Solomon of this consequence of his idolatry but also Jeroboam, the man who would lead the ten tribes to secede and thus become the first king of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 11:26-40). It is clear from the narrative that the split was God’s direct judgment on Solomon’s idolatry. But what actually caused it to happen?

After Solomon died he was succeeded by his son Rehoboam. When the nation gathered at Shechem to formally make Rehoboam king, the northern ten tribes were represented by Jeroboam, who said to Rehoboam that “we will serve you” if the king-designate would “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put upon us” (1 Kings 12:4). Solomon had not only failed to love God with all his heart when he practiced idolatry, he had also failed to love his neighbor as himself when he placed oppressive demands on his people.

When Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father, they replied, “If you will be a servant to this people today, will serve them, grant them their petition,… then they will be your servants forever” (1 Kings 12:7). Thus the elders advised Rehoboam to practise the “servant leadership” that Jesus taught His disciples when He told them not to be like the “rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over them,” but instead that the leader among them “must be a slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). But Rehoboam rejected their wise counsel and consulted the young men he grew up with who served him. They advised him not only to reject the petition but also to say that he would significantly “add to your yoke” (1 Kings 12:10-11). This was the actual cause of the secession of the ten tribes.

Thus Rehoboam was directly responsible for the split. Solomon was also responsible for having oppressed his people in the first place. In other words, though the split was a judgment of God (divine sovereignty), Solomon and Rehoboam were responsible for making it happen (human responsibility). This expresses particularly well a paradoxical teaching that undergirds both the Old Testament and the New Testament: God is sovereign over whatever happens, yet human beings are responsible for what they do or fail to do. This is a paradox because the teaching seems logically inconsistent. For if God is sovereign, as Paul puts it (Romans 9:19), who can resist His will? How then can we be responsible?

This paradoxical teaching is also expressed in God’s choice of the Benjamite Saul to be the first king, with the view that if Saul had not violated God’s commandment “the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Samuel 13:13). It is paradoxical because God had already promised through Jacob that kingship would remain in the tribe of Judah until the coming of the Messiah (Genesis 49:10). In other words, even before Saul became king, God had effectively decided that kingship would be taken away from his family to be given to David’s family (divine sovereignty). But it was Saul’s disobedience that actually made it happen (human responsibility).

Another significant expression of this paradoxical teaching is God’s choice of Jacob over Esau, his older twin-brother, to inherit the Abrahamic Covenant. Even before they were born God had said “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). But Esau was responsible for making it happen: he sold his birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:29-34; cf. Hebrews 12:16-17). In this case it can be argued that God simply said what was going to happen on the basis of His knowledge of the future. If so it was not about God’s sovereignty in choosing Jacob over Esau. However the apostle Paul confirms that God had sovereignly chosen Jacob over Esau when they “were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad” (Romans 9:10-13; cf. Malachi 1:2-3).

This paradoxical teaching is so pervasive that unless we accept it, at least temporarily, we will have problems understanding what the Bible has to say to us. But does it make sense to accept, even temporarily, paradoxical teachings in the Bible?

Paradoxical teachings, by definition, seem logically inconsistent. But this creates intellectual problems for us only when we have presupposed that our created mind can fully understand the uncreated God and His ways. In this exposition we have presupposed Genesis 1:1, which teaches that God, as confessed by Solomon, is both transcendent and immanent. In other words, though God is infinite He has revealed Himself in our finite world in a manner that our finite mind can understand Him and His ways, but not fully. So a God and whose ways we can fully understand is not the God presented in Genesis 1:1 (for a thorough defence of the rationality of paradoxical teachings in the Bible, see Anderson 2007).

In fact, unless we accept both divine sovereignty as well as human responsibility, we cannot even talk about the meaning of history. For history is story-shaped. So just as in the case of a story, history has no meaning unless it has a meaningful ending (see further the exposition of Ecclesiastes on The Meaning of Life). The Old Testament not only recounts how this world began but also how it will end meaningfully. But unless God is sovereign we have no assurance that this world will end just as the Old Testament says it would, which involves an ultimate judgment on unrepentant wickedness.

This view of history presupposes that God is sovereign—there will certainly be an ultimate judgment. It also presupposes that human beings are responsible for what they have done or failed to do—unrepentant wickedness deserves to be punished. Our conscience (sense of justice) does not deny that this has to be the case if history is to end meaningfully. The alternative is to affirm that history has no meaning.

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